Analysis 06 Aug 13

Kosovo: Can War Heroes Be War Criminals?

The first half of 2013 in Kosovo was turbulent, with mass protests against the arrests of former fighters on war crimes charges, and convictions for organ-trafficking and the torture of prisoners.

Edona Peci
BIRN
Pristina

The first few months of this year did not go smoothly in Kosovo, with several protest rallies sparked by war crimes cases and legislation pushed forwards by the government.

The adoption of a controversial amnesty law at the beginning of July was preceded by demonstrations and harsh criticism by opposition parties and civil society.

The law did not pass its first reading in parliament because of a controversial section which envisaged reductions in punishments for those convicted of crimes like murder, manslaughter, harassment, defamation, assault and theft.

But it was approved a week later after the government removed the disputed section and added a new article which states that “all criminal offences which resulted in bodily harm and murder will not be amnestied”.

The legislation, which is part of the recent Pristina-Belgrade deal to normalise relations, aims to help integrate Serbs in north Kosovo by ensuring they are not prosecuted for resistance to the Pristina authorities in the past, which would prevent them from taking roles in Kosovo public institutions in the future.

But the opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) Movement bitterly rejected the legislation, saying it would free “Serbian criminals”.

“Why should criminals who dealt with organised crime in the north be amnestied?” the party asked.

Meanwhile, the Kosovar Institute for Policy, Research and Development, backed by some 30 other non-governmental organisations in Pristina, launched a petition aiming to amend the legislation further by specifying who will be amnestied and for which offences.

EU rule-of-law mission criticised

The Kosovo parliament was the venue for another heated debate at the end of May.

After the arrest of seven suspects of war crimes - a former Kosovo Security Forces commander and a mayor included - several MPs asked parliament and the president to review the EU rule-of-law mission EULEX’s mandate.

Former Kosovo Security Forces commander, Sylejman Selimi, current Skenderaj/Srbica mayor, Sami Lushtaku, and five other suspects are being investigated for war crimes against civilians held in a Kosovo Liberation Army detention centre during 1998.

The arrests sparked a mass protest in Pristina, where several thousand people marched through the city to the government building to demand the men’s release.

But, the head of EULEX, Bernd Bochard, reacted in an article distributed to Kosovo media by promising that prosecutions would continue despite the criticism.

“EULEX will continue - together with its Kosovo partners - its efforts to deliver justice for the most vulnerable in this society; to bring perpetrators, no matter who they are, to justice,” Borchardt said in the article.

However, the War Veterans Association in Kosovo vowed to continue to oppose EULEX’s powers.

Former KLA fighters sentenced

Meanwhile, a court presided over by a EULEX judge convicted three former KLA guerrillas known as the ‘Llapi Group’ of torturing wartime prisoners and sentenced to a total of 13 years in prison.

Latif Gashi, now a lawmaker with the ruling Kosovo Democratic Party, was sentenced to six years in prison; Rrustem Mustafa was sentenced to four years, while the third defendant Nazif Mehmeti was sentenced to three years.

Their indictment alleged that they “ordered and participated in the beating and torture of Kosovo Albanian civilians detained in the detention centre located at Llapashtica/Lapastica, in an attempt to force those detainees to confess to acts of disloyalty to the KLA from October of 1998 until late April 1999”.

Charles Hardaway, the EULEX prosecutor in the case, told the court ahead of the verdict: “These three men are not war heroes, they are war criminals”.

But Gashi told reporters after the verdict: “The criminals are the ones we put in detention, and not us.”

Organ-trafficking convictions

At the end of April, a verdict was handed down in another case which attracted attention not only in Pristina and Belgrade but throughout the world.

A Kosovo court convicted five men of participating in an illegal organ-trading ring that sold human kidneys at the Medicus clinic near Pristina, bringing in poor people from abroad with false promises of large payments, removing their organs and transplanting them into rich patients.

The court found the former owner of the Medicus clinic, Lutfi Dervishi, guilty of organised crime and people-trafficking, sentenced him to eight years in prison and imposed a fine of 10,000 euro.

His son Arban Dervishi was found guilty of the same charges and sentenced to seven years and three months in prison, and fined 2,500 euro.

The clinic’s head anaesthetist Sokol Hajdini was sentenced to three years in prison, while assistant anaesthetists Islam Bytyqi and Sylejman Dula were sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, suspended for two years.

However a senior official at the Kosovo health ministry, Ilir Rrecaj, was acquitted of abusing his position.

The indictment said that around 30 illegal kidney transplants took place at the clinic in 2008.

The EULEX prosecutor said that the transplant recipients, mainly Israelis, paid more than 70,000 euro for the kidneys.

Two foreign suspects in the case - Turkish doctor Yusuf Sonmez and Moshe Harel, an Israeli citizen - are still at large.

After the convictions of the five Kosovars, the EU rule of law mission launched a new investigation into eight people suspected of involvement in the organ-trading ring that operated from the Medicus clinic.

The Medicus clinic was also mentioned in a Council of Europe report which alleged that elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army traded the organs of prisoners during the 1999 conflict.

But EULEX prosecutor Jonathan Ratel told BIRN that he had “found no direct evidence” of a link between Medicus and the KLA.

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